How Does Education Get to Now?

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get to now: Brilliant or Insane
photo credit: Streaming via photopin (license)

Not long ago, I had a fascinating conversation with bestselling author and Emmy-nominated TV host, Steven Johnson. You likely know him as the author of Stuff Matters, Where Good Ideas Come From, and How We Got to Now; the latter is also a popular television show on PBS.

As a consultant at Brightspace Fusion, a conference where leaders discuss the future of education, I was fortunate to enjoy a private chat with Johnson, where he discussed some of the components of his keynote address.

Using How We Got to Now as a backdrop for the speech, Johnson talked about relatively unknown people throughout history, who made startling discoveries and invented fantastic technologies, only to see their ideas obscured because they couldn’t overcome a single blind spot–something that hides the connective tissue that takes the raw idea and molds it into a tangible product.

For example, Johnson explains how Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville created the phonautograph, a machine that recorded sound. Of course, people are more familiar with the phonograph, which Thomas Edison invented many years after Scott de Martinville learned how to record sound. So, why does virtually every educated person know of Edison’s invention but few know much about the phonautograph?

The answer is remarkably simple: Scott de Martinville couldn’t navigate one powerful blind spot–playing back the sound he’d recorded. After all, what good is recorded sound if you can’t hear it? “He was right there,” Johnson says. “But it never occurred to him that people might want to hear what they recorded; it was a blind spot.”

Johnson says that learning to navigate blind spots is ultimately what leads to great innovation (realizing the importance of hearing recorded sound, Edison built on Scott de Martinville’s idea and invented the phonograph). And, Johnson emphasized during his keynote at the Fusion conference, these innovations ultimately help us get to where we are now–something education must do.

3 ways education can get to now

1 – Collaborate: Johnson says that Scott de Martinsville lacked a key element, when he was working–a team. Innovators use other stakeholders. They brainstorm and troubleshoot. Education continues to use a top-down model. Policymakers dictate to district administrators, who dictate to building principals, who pull the strings of teachers. It’s time for these driving forces to work together.

2 – Listen: Educators talk too much and listen too little. Parents and students have ideas about what teaching and learning should look like. Of course, they too have blind spots. If we listen to their suggestions and collaborate, the solutions may come into view.

3 – Take action: Ever hear an American school leader or a politician praise schools in Finland? For more than a decade, presidents and principals have been saying we should be more like Finland. Then, while the statement wafts through hallways and auditoriums, they scurry off and begin preparation for the next high stakes test; they can’t see this blind spot. If we are smart enough to look at model schools and acknowledge what they do well, we must take the next step and implement a plan to mimic what they do.

If Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville worked with others, listened to suggestions, created a plan and acted on it, he might be more than an afterthought today.

He didn’t see the blind spot, and he didn’t get to now.

Let’s hope education fares better.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series, The uNseries, and other books from some of education's most reputable teachers and leaders. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Connect with @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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